Richard Boles is Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. This interview is based on his new book, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (NYU Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Dividing the Faith?
RB: My interest in this topic and the primary research questions for Dividing the Faith developed from my work as a Park Ranger at the Boston African American National Historic Site. The African Meeting House, which was constructed in 1806 as the place of worship for Boston’s first African American church, is the centerpiece of this National Historic Site. I knew enslaved Africans were brought to Boston as early as 1638, so I wondered about African American church attendance throughout the colonial era. I was unsatisfied with the existing scholarly explanations for African American religious practices in New England before the African Meeting House opened. I also noticed some African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century who attended predominantly white churches instead of the Black Baptist or Methodist congregations. I wondered why some African Americans chose to affiliate with mostly white churches. In subsequent years, Professor David Silverman taught me the importance of including Native Americans in any analysis of racial categories in early America, which broadened my research scope. I eventually surveyed the records of more than four hundred congregations looking for racial notations to answer these questions.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Dividing the Faith?
RB: African Americans and Native Americans regularly affiliated with a range of eighteenth-century northern churches, which means that these churches were more interracial than historians have assumed and that when they divided along racial lines, churches implicitly gave moral sanction to the widespread segregation in northern society by the 1830s. The origins of African American and Indigenous forms of Christianity were diverse and multifaceted as these peoples often participated in Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed churches and not merely revivalist Baptist and Methodist ones.
JF: Why do we need to read Dividing the Faith?
RB: This book is the first to recover so fully the history of African American and Native American affiliation in Protestant churches across the entire northern region. How Sunday morning became “the most segregated time” in American life was not simply a linear story of declension. Rather, it was a complex and dynamic history replete with fascinating individuals, including Phillis Wheatley, Lemuel Haynes, Samson Occom, William Apess, and many less-well-known people, who made religious choices that defied the common patterns and assumptions of American society. By scrutinizing similar and dissimilar experiences of Blacks and Indians, this book also contributes to the growing historiography on the construction of racial identities in early America and shows the need to treat churches as influential social institutions, not just religious ones. The construction of racial identities in churches affected and reflected broader social changes. The extent of interracial interactions in northern churches challenges truisms about northern states that have fed into Americans’ racial consciousness, and so this study furthers the reintegration of northern churches within the history of racism in America.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RB: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved learning and reading about American history. My mother was a history major, and when I was young, my family and I often visited museums and historical sites across different regions of America. By the time I enrolled at Boston College, I knew I wanted to study history, but I was unsure what I would do next. After finishing my BA and MA degrees in American history, I began working in historic preservation and part-time for the Park Service. While giving history walking tours of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail as a Park Ranger, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching and explaining the stories of remarkable Americans such as David Walker, William C. Nell, Maria Stewart, and others.
JF: What is your next project?
RB: My next project will examine the ways African Americans and Native Americans frequently influenced the religious practices in each other’s communities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The field of American religious history and explanations for the origins of African American and Native American churches usually have privileged Euro-American missionaries. Despite the challenges of limited source materials, I see this project as an opportunity to focus on diverse religious lives and choices of African Americans and Native Americans.
JF: Thanks, Richard!